Rare Word | 2nd after Epiphany

Worship Video:

1 Samuel 3:1-20

1 Now the boy Samuel was serving the LORD under Eli. The LORD’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the LORD’s temple, where God’s chest was.

4 The LORD called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.

5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.

6 Again the LORD called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”

7 (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)

8 A third time the LORD called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

Then Eli realized that it was the LORD who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.

10 Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

11 The LORD said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! 12 On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! 13 I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. 14 Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the LORD’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!”

“I’m here,” Samuel said.

17 “What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.

“He is the LORD, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.”

19 So Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail. 20 All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the LORD’s prophet. (CEB)

Rare Word

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b NRSV). How near to us and our time this sentence sounds. These days, it feels like the word of the Lord is a rare word, indeed, especially amid the corruption we see all around. This story speaks to our today profoundly. The opening chapters of 1 Samuel describe a time of crisis, and a transition of leadership, which sounds strikingly familiar, doesn’t it? Eli was a priest of the Lord, and he was a Judge of Israel (c.f. 1 Samuel 4:18). Samuel, too, was a priest of the Lord and became Judge of Israel after Eli (c.f. 1 Samuel 7:6).

In Samuel’s day, the tabernacle of God stood at Shiloh where the Israelites had set it up in the days of Joshua. Shiloh served as the central location of Israelite worship long before the Jerusalem temple was built. First Samuel 3 tells us the story of Samuel’s call as a prophet of the Lord. He was already serving as a priest alongside Eli and Eli’s two sons because Samuel’s mother, Hannah, made a vow to the Lord that, if he would allow her to conceive a son, then she would dedicate her son to the Lord. Hannah’s story echoes the stories of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and the mother of Samson. We see later echoes of the same in Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptizer.

In chapter 2, we learn how Eli’s two sons were corrupt and immoral priests who didn’t know the Lord, and probably didn’t care to (c.f. 1 Samuel 2:12-17, 22). They stole the best portions of the people’s offerings to the Lord. They had sex with the women who were there to serve the Lord at the tabernacle’s entrance. They were despicable scoundrels. The Hebrew word used to describe them means worthless or wicked. Things were so bad that God sent a man to Eli to give Eli a message: God would end Eli’s house because of how his sons behaved in leading Israel astray, and because Eli, himself, didn’t put a stop to their illicit and unlawful activity (c.f. 1 Samuel 2:27-36).

This was the situation when Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. This is the mess clamoring in the background when we hear that a voice in the night woke Samuel up by calling his name. Samuel assumed the voice was Eli’s, so he ran to the old man’s side and asked him what he wanted.

We’re told, “Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7 CEB). So, this back-and-forth happened three times before Eli—roused from sleep once again—realized that it was the Lord who was calling Samuel. Eli instructed Samuel what he should do the next time the Lord called him.

There is some brilliant wordplay in the Hebrew text that our English translations can’t reveal. Samuel’s name means, Name-of-God or possibly God-has-heard. His mother, Hannah, gave Samuel that name because God heard her plea for a son when she asked the Lord for him.

The word for asked in those verses (c.f. 1 Samuel 1:17, 20, 27) is also a play on the name of Saul, which has the same meaning. It points to how intertwined Samuel’s life would later become with that of King Saul.

Eli’s name means My God, which is more than a little ironic given his disgraced situation. We hear his name again in Matthew when Jesus cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matthew 27:46 CEB).

So, listen to how this scene plays out. The Lord called, Name-of-God! Name-of-God! And Name-of-God ran to My-God, saying, “Here I am, for you called me.” And My-God said, “I didn’t call you. Go lie down.”

The Lord called again, Name-of-God! Name-of-God! And Name-of-God ran to My-God, saying, “Here I am, for you called me.” And My-God said, “I didn’t call you, my son. Go lie down.”

The wordplay is almost comedic. The boy, Name-of-God, kept running to My-God instead of his true God. And it makes me wonder, to what gods do we turn when we don’t know where else to go?

A third time, the Lord said, Name-of-God! Name-of-God! And Name-of-God again ran to My-God, saying, “Here I am, for you called me.” And Eli—My-God—this aging priest with eyes that could no longer see realized that the Lord was calling to Samuel—Name-of-God.

As the scene progresses to this point, I imagine old Eli was truly awake for the first time in an age. There are times in our lives when it’s easier to identify with Eli than many of us would like to admit. At the beginning of our faith—or even at different seasons of our faith—we dedicate or rededicate ourselves to service, and prayer, and spiritual disciplines, and religious instruction. We’re all in.

Then, when difficulties beset us, we can begin to fall asleep: our hearts, minds, and souls can grow disillusioned and tired. We can come to the point where we could work all day in the tabernacle and never see God, never sense the presence of the Holy One, never hear the still small whisperings of the Lord. And those are frustrating periods: soul-rending and dark.

I have had my share of these up-and-down seasons, so I can readily identify with Eli who, at this point, is maybe living in a state of hopelessness and dismay. He knows his sons are worthless. He’s a descendent of Aaron, yet he knows his line as a priest is coming to an end. He knows his own failures as a father are partly to blame. God no longer spoke, or so it seemed, since “The word of the Lord was rare in those days” and “visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b NRSV). So, what’s left for Eli?

I think it’s in this moment of realization that the Lord was calling to Samuel that Eli finds his answer. Samuel proved to Eli that the Lord did still speak, even if Eli could no longer hear it. I think it speaks volumes about Eli that, instead of growing angry or jealous that the Lord would speak to this child instead of him, Eli simply points Samuel in the right direction. Eli is able to tell Samuel exactly what Samuel should do, which is an act of faithfulness.

“Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’ Samuel said, ‘Speak. Your servant is listening’” (1 Samuel 3:10 CEB). As I mentioned before, Samuel’s name could also possibly mean God hears, which adds another layer to the wordplay. A boy named God-hears tells the Lord that he’s listening. And the Lord said, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering” (1 Samuel 3:11-14 CEB).

Imagine how difficult a word this would have been for Samuel to hear. He loved Eli. This man raised him. Samuel was faithful to Eli. Samuel ran to him three times in the middle of the night when he thought Eli was calling for him. In the morning, Eli wants to know every word of what God said with nothing held back. And again, I think it says something of Eli that he accepted the Lord’s word. “‘He is the LORD,’ Eli said. ‘He will do as he pleases’” (1 Samuel 3:18b CEB).

Afterward, we’re told that “Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail. All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the LORD’s prophet” (1 Samuel 3:19-20 CEB). Samuel’s credibility was rooted in the freedom and promise of God. God raises up those who are faithful, and God brings down those who are not. In Samuel and Eli, we see a reversal of roles that becomes a theme throughout the Scriptures and how God deals with human beings. The young, innocent Samuel is authorized to hear and speak the word of God. Eli, on the other hand, became fully dependent upon Samuel to hear the Lord’s word.

It’s a reminder that God takes faithfulness seriously. God has no problem with lifting up the lowly to take the place of the mighty when the mighty fail to obey God’s commandments. It is a story we read about later with Saul and David. We read it again with the destruction of Shiloh and the building of Jerusalem’s temple. And, as Jeremiah later foretold with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (c.f. Jeremiah 7:12-14). Mary echoed the song of Hannah when she sang: “He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed” (Luke 1:52-53 CEB).

The story that Scripture repeats over and again is that those who act with humility, piety, and faithfulness receive God’s favor. Those who act otherwise lose it. For the people of Israel, Samuel’s call became an invitation to a fresh beginning, an invitation to faithfulness, an invitation to live life according to God’s design. Samuel would go on to anoint Kings Saul and David. Under God’s direction, he established the monarchy in Judah and Israel. He would guide the people of Israel all the days of his life because of his obedience and faithfulness. But it all began with a barren, ridiculed woman’s prayer for God to hear.

Throughout the human story, God has called people. Regular people. Insignificant people. Even people like me and you to do the extraordinary. To be called by God is both intimate and urgent. And God’s call can change the trajectory of our lives in ways we could never expect and certainly couldn’t foresee.

Just like Samuel, the first thing we’re called to do is to listen. Sometimes I wonder if the voice of the Lord is rare in these days, or if we just need to learn how to listen. When I have my own “Eli” moments—my moments of doubt—I’ve found in my self-reflection that it’s really not God whom I doubt, but my ability to hear, see, sense, and know. In this particular season in our life, do we feel more like Samuel or Eli?

It might be worth noting that when Samuel had grown old, he appointed his sons as Judges of Israel. But Joel and Abijah didn’t follow in Samuel’s footsteps. They tried to turn a profit, they accepted bribes, and they perverted justice (c.f. 1 Samuel 8:1-3). Their corruption prompted the Israelite elders to ask Samuel to appoint a king over them.

What this tells me is something I—indeed, all of us—should already know: that God loves faithfulness. God will pluck up or pull down what isn’t working, and God will build or plant something new to give us what we need. This cycle of building and pulling down culminated in God’s self-offering of Jesus Christ. God has redeemed us, and we can receive salvation from our sins and new life in God.

Is the world of the Lord rare in our days, or are we not listening? When we hear God calling, may we respond just as Eli told Samuel, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Tuesday Update – 12 December 2021

Dear members and friends of First UMC,

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! 

I hope you are staying safe and well in the New Year. I have learned a little more about our tehcnology here at the church (it never never ends), and now I can insert photos into our mailing list emails. It might not seem like much, but it sure makes the financial table (below) look better. 

Pastoral Care Update
I know we can’t do much visiting with each other in person, but if you need to talk, please call me on my cell phone. If I don’t answer, please leave a message so I can get back to you. We can also schedule a time to video conference together. Also note that the church office is open from 8:00-Noon Monday through Friday. 

Worship Update
We continue to stream our worship services live on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. to the First UMC Facebook page. After the live stream, the worship video is still available on Facebook, AND we post the video to the First UMC website, Rev. Millay’s YouTube Channel, and Rev. Millay’s Pastopher sermon blog. Unfortunately, we still cannot gather for worship in person due to our area’s infection numbers (more on that below). I miss you. I know you miss worship, too. But, I hope you can join us online. 

We will continue to celebrate Holy Communion each Sunday, so have your bread/crackers and juice ready. 

COVID-19 Update
I must sound like a broken record at this point but, our current numbers suggest that we are once again on track for our worst month yet. (I can’t wait to send an email where I get to say something different). In the first eleven days of January, Posey County has recorded 269 positive COVID-19 cases. Please stay safe out there and follow the recommended preventive guidelines. You can find vaccine information at Deaconess – COVID-19 Vaccine and ISDH – Vaccine Information. At the moment, only certain people can receive the vaccine. If you’re over 80 years old, then you’re one of them.

Please keep our medical workers in your prayers. And we have several people on our prayer list due to COVID-19 infections. Please remember them as well. 

Financial Update
I included a table (below) so you can see our full 2020 financial picture. We finished 2020 with just over $20k in cash. That lets us begin 2021 in a decent place. Thank you for giving your tithes and offerings faithfully and with generosity. From worship, to local community outreach, to the global work of our United Methodist Church, your giving is what funds the mission and ministry of our local congregation and our world-wide church.

You make everything we do possible. 

You can set up automatic donations in three ways. (Sometimes we forget to write a tithe or offfering check, but thankfully we can set up recurring donations to remember for us). 

1. Most banks have a free bill pay feature through their website. This will allow you to set up a recurring payment from your bank account. If you use this feature, your bank will usually mail a paper check to the church. 

2. You can use our secure Vanco WebPay giving portal to set up a recurring donation from your bank account or credit card. If you use this feature, Vanco will depost your donation into our church’s account. Click this link to get started: WebPay Portal.

3. You can use the Vanco GivePlus mobile app on your Apple or Android phone. Simply download the app by searching for “GivePlus Church” in the App Store or Play Store. If you use this feature, Vanco will depost your donation into our church’s account. To lean how to use the GivePlus mobile app, you can watch this short video


NOTE: First UMC received a PPP loan in May for $38,100. Without this loan, May’s income would have totaled $14,128, and we would have finished 2020 with an $-18,079 deficit. 

May God’s light shine ever brighter in us. 

Yours in Christ,
Rev. Christopher Millay
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Baptism | 1st after Epiphany

Worship Video:

Genesis 1:1-5

1 When God began to create the heavens and the earth—2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—3 God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. 4 God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God named the light Day and the darkness Night. There was evening and there was morning: the first day. (CEB)

Baptism

It might seem odd to read this text for a sermon about baptism, or a holy day that commemorates the Baptism of the Lord. After all, what does the first creation account in Genesis have to do with baptism? Really, the question we ought to ask is what baptism has to do with creation. And the answer is everything. Baptism is an act of re-creation on God’s part.

The first creation account in Genesis tells us something of God’s character. God speaks, and the power of God’s Word causes what is created to appear. There’s no violence, conquest, or war among the gods, as in the creation myths of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, Epic of Baal). God simply speaks, and the Word of God creates.

John described the power of the Word this way, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being” (John 1:1-3a CEB).

The word for create (בָּרָ֣א), itself, is not common in the Hebrew Old Testament. There are other words that we often translate as make, or fashion, or craft, but this word for create is only used in reference to what God does. God creates. God is the creator. God, alone, creates something from the deep and boundless nothing of un-creation.

The first creation account tells us that the existence of everything that is depends wholly upon God. When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth had no shape or form. The Greek Septuagint describes the earth as invisible and unformed (ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος), and darkness covered the boundlessness. The Hebrew describes it as a confused unreality and emptiness (‎תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ), and darkness covered the surface of the deep.

The first thing God does in this act of creation is to hover or sweep over the waters. The Hebrew word used for this action is also used to describe how a bird flaps its wings to hover over its young (c.f. Deuteronomy 32:11), or how a person might tremble and shake when overcome or confronted by God’s word (c.f. Jeremiah 23:9). It suggests God’s Spirit is not sitting still. In both Hebrew and Greek, the words used to describe how the darkness covered the deep-nothing is the same word used to describe what God’s Spirit does. In a sense, God’s Spirit displaces—or at the least interrupts—the darkness that covered the deep, boundless nothing.

I kind of imagine it like The Nothing from The Neverending Story: that formless, featureless, impossible to describe, mist-shrouded, negation of existence. A sort of un-creation. But the author of Genesis 1 envisioned it as both empty unreality and an endless sea of water. No human being was present to see this event, of course, so the writer used metaphors that they and others could understand.

As the Spirit of God sweeps, hovers, and broods over the waters of the deep nothing, “God said, ‘let there be light.’ And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night. There was evening and there was morning: the first day” (Genesis 1:3-5 CEB). Even the familiar cycle of night and day owes its existence to the God who creates. Before the sun and moon were made, God established time in the division of night and day. Everything that exists depends upon the creative power of God.

The appearance of light gives us perception of color and shape. The light brought a new order to the ever-present, boundless darkness. God saw that the light was good. God did not necessarily think the dark was bad. Yet, this moment of creation sets up the duality of light and darkness that becomes a theme which we see throughout the Scriptures.

John chapter 1 says of light and darkness, “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light (John 1:3b-5 CEB). The light that God created through divine speech was none other than life. Life was the light. Christian theology understands that God’s Spirit hovered over the waters to prepare and bless them for the life of light that was about to come forth.

This duality also speaks to our perception of light and darkness. I’ve never heard of a child who was afraid at night because there was too much light in their bedroom. Human beings naturally fear the dark. Darkness is the place of fear and threat and the unknown: of monsters under the bed. Light is the place of courage and safety and the knowable. God separates what we perceive, deep in our psyche, that which we think of as good and not good.

It’s interesting how the interruption of darkness by light begins a duality that goes on until creation gets made anew. Toward the end of Revelation, John the Seer wrote, “The city doesn’t need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there” (Revelation 21:23-25 CEB). A few verses later, in chapter 22 he wrote, “Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always” (Revelation 22:5 CEB). John of Revelation sees no more darkness because, for us, darkness represent fear and death. But in the new creation, there is only life.

While we can recognize this part of us that fears the dark, we also need to recognize that, while we sometimes fear the dark, God does not declare the darkness bad. So, we shouldn’t read too much of our fearful inclinations into the dark as though our fears define reality. I think we’ve seen quite enough of people acting from their fears recently. While neither our fears nor our words have the creative power of God’s Word, the words we say and the words to which we hearken do have the ability to shape and define how we perceive reality. Some people have let their fear of conspiracy theories dominate their perception of everything. They have allowed their fears to imprison them, and all they can see is darkness and terror all around.

But darkness is only bad when we let our fears defeat our trust in God. I love dark nights with clear skies. When I get our telescopes out, I get to peer through the dark to see pinpricks of light that absolutely dazzle. In fact, one of my annoyances is that, in my neighborhood, every house has at least one lamp post blazing from dusk to dawn, so it doesn’t get dark enough. You see, it’s in the dark that other lights appear. And sometimes we need the dark to see the light clearly.

In Genesis 15, God made a covenant with Abram in the deep dark of night (c.f. Genesis 15:17). In Genesis 26, God appeared to Isaac in a dream as he slept at night (c.f. Genesis 26:24). It was during the night that Jacob wrestled with God at Peniel (c.f. Genesis 32:22-24). God warned the Magi and Joseph about Herod’s schemes in dreams at night (c.f. Matthew 2:12-14). Jesus prayed through the night before he was arrested and killed (c.f. Mark 14:35-41). Some of my favorite worship services take place at night when the dark crowds us in. There’s something intimate, life-giving, and faith-filling about the dark when we’re in the presence of God. It’s wondrous, not fearful.

Baptism, itself, is a revisitation to those dark, primordial waters of creation. God does the work of recreation in baptism. We understand baptism primarily as something God does. When I, as a pastor, baptize someone, my actions sort of mimic what God is doing. I’m the visible one who reveals God’s invisible work. I offer a prayer of blessing over the water and call upon the Spirit of God sweep over the face of the water to bless the water and the one being baptized. And God is there, among us in that moment, blessing those baptismal waters. When I, the pastor, pour water over the one being baptized, God is there in that moment acting with a power that only God has to make the person receiving baptism a new creation in Christ.

We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are symbolically plunged into the primordial, chaotic waters of creation, which God’s Spirit has come upon and blessed for new creation. When God baptizes us, we die a symbolic death in those waters, and we symbolically rise to new life. We are claimed by God as God’s own. And we acknowledge that our very being—all that we have, all that we are, all that we will ever become—is tied irrevocably to the God who spoke the Word into the darkness and brought forth light and life.

Baptism is a reminder to each of us, as well as an invitation, that we must return to reverence. Reverence is what keeps us from acting as if we are gods. Reverence also keeps us from fearing the dark. When we revere God, we have no reason to be afraid.

On this first Sunday after The Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus did not seek baptism out of a need to repent, but out of a need to show solidarity with the rest of us and all of fallen creation. His own symbolic death and resurrection in the waters of the Jordan stand as a promise to us that we too, along with all of creation, will rise restored, renewed, recreated. It’s a promise that God continues to create, that God continues to bring order into our chaos, that God continues to shine light into the darkness of our lives, that God continues to bring life where we can only see death.

Some translations of Genesis 1 render the text into English as, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth” (NRSV, c.f. also RSV, KJV, NIV, NAB, NJB). But other translations render the Hebrew into English by saying, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth” (CEB, c.f. also Tanakh). Both are valid translations of the Hebrew. But the idea that God began to create seems more fitting, simply because God isn’t done. God has never stopped creating, and I wonder whether God ever will. This is the story of when God began to create. And the story of creation is still being written in the world and in us. We can trust that even on our darkest day, there is still, and always shall be light and life. And the power of God’s creative Word still sustains and still makes new.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Don’t Be Afraid

I hear many whispering, “Terror is all around!”
But I will not be afraid.

Trust in Jesus Christ,
not Q.

Believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
not conspiracy theories.

Seek to pattern your life on that of Jesus Christ,
not chase after wind and the worries of this world.

Conspiracy theories are born of fear,
and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Why are you cast down? Why is your soul disquieted?
Don’t be afraid.

Don’t call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy. Don’t fear what they fear,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember that there is no fear in love,
but perfect love casts out fear.

Remember your baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember the God who gave you birth,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember the God who redeemed you,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember that we are citizens of another dominion,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember the one who died and rose for your sake,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember that we have a home not made with human hands,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember the God who will raise you up,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember that the Lord is our helper,
and don’t be afraid. What can mere mortals do to us?

Remember to cast all your anxiety on God,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember that our hope is in the name of the Lord,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember the one who is trustworthy and true,
and don’t be afraid.

Remember the one who said, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled,
and do not let them be afraid.”

I will not be afraid.

Shine! | Epiphany Sunday

Worship video:

Isaiah 60:1-6

1 Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the LORD’s glory has shone upon you.

2 Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the LORD will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you.

3 Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.

4 Lift up your eyes and look all around: they are all gathered; they have come to you. Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips.

5 Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide, because the sea’s abundance will be turned over to you; the nations’ wealth will come to you.6 Countless camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah. They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming the LORD’s praises. (CEB)

Shine!

On this Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, which falls on January 6. But, in years where January 6 is not a Sunday, we usually move the celebration to the Sunday prior to the 6th. For those of us in the Western Church, Epiphany is when we celebrate the revealing of God’s mysteries to the Gentiles, the inclusion of the Gentiles as heirs to God’s promises, and the inclusion of the Gentiles as part of God’s beloved people.

Isaiah speaks of the coming of God into the world as a brilliant light. The light—this gift of God—carries with it the power to transform and restore God’s people. What’s more, those who have always been considered outsiders are inevitably drawn in so that everyone, every nation, every people, will come to the light.

Before Isaiah preached this message, Israel had gone through a long season of darkness and despair. They had suffered invasion and defeat at the hands of Babylon. They were exiled to a foreign land. And they were far away from Jerusalem and the temple that, in that day, lay in ruins. In the midst of this desolation, Isaiah dared to preach about a season of light that was to come. In Israel’s worship life, God’s coming in power is often described as the coming of light, or glory. God’s glory shines, and when God’s glory shines, Israel lives in the glow, and Israel, itself, exists as a presence of light in the world.

My children enjoy learning about the night sky and astronomy. On clear nights, I love to set up our family’s eight-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope to see what we can see. You may have seen some of my pictures of various celestial bodies.

I hope you were able to see the recent conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, because it was amazing! People were calling it the “Christmas Star.” Of course, it was a misnomer because stars produce their own light, but planets and moons don’t. Sunlight always touches the planets, but we don’t see the reflection of that light unless Earth and the stellar bodies are in the right place. We have to be aligned properly. When we are, the planets shine bright in the dark of night.

The same could be said of God’s people. God’s light has come into the world, but are we reflecting the glow? We live in a world where, sometimes, all we can see is darkness. 2020 was been a very dark year. Worldwide, over 1.8 million people have died from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nineteen percent of them were Americans. We can’t visit each other safely. We can’t worship together in our sanctuary safely. This past year has been a strain on our mental and emotional health, our social life, our work life, and the vibrancy of our faith. 2020 was a difficult year, and we aren’t out of the woods yet.

Nevertheless, Isaiah prompts us to rise and move into the light. Arise! Shine! The light of God is right here among us, shining in the darkness. God has arisen upon us, and we’re told to look up and see. With the coming of Christ into the world, the world has shifted. It’s a move from a sense of God’s absence to the truth of God’s presence: from despair to hope, from dismay to well-being.

God has come into the world! God’s arrival transforms everything. The prophet tells Israel, “Arise! Shine!” These are both imperatives. They are demands. It is a command for us to come in from the darkness into the presence of God’s glorious light.

We can arise and shine because our light has come and “the glory of the Lord” has risen upon us. The light in question is God’s and ours. God’s light shines for us. God has always been our only hope. The light – “your light” – is an intrusion into our world; a beacon that draws us near, a brilliancy that commands God’s people to let the light of God shine through us. When we stand in the light, we share in its brilliance; we reflect its brightness for others to see.

In the first two verses of Isaiah’s oracle, God’s glory is mentioned, then Isaiah talks about darkness. But this isn’t just any darkness. This is thick darkness that covers the earth in gloom. This is ominous stuff. Then, the prophet describes the appearance of God’s glory again. The glory of the Lord brackets the darkness. Poetically speaking, the glory of the Lord contains and overwhelms this all-encompassing darkness. The darkness will not escape from the light. Darkness gets demolished by light. Darkness can’t exist in the presence of light. Isaiah commands us to get up, stand in the light, and shine.

Isaiah’s words reveal that the nations of the earth will be drawn to God through the reflective beams we cast into the world’s dark places. Something new happens in verses 4-7. When we arise and shine, when we finally lift our eyes from despair, we’ll hardly believe what our eyes see. People will be drawn to God.

In Isaiah’s time, Jerusalem had thought itself abandoned and cast off. But Isaiah sees a time when all the nations of the earth will make the journey to be in a new and restored Jerusalem. It’s a time when the city of peace finally lives up to its name.

On the one hand, the sons and daughters of Israel will come, cared for, protected, and valued. The exiles that have been scattered far from Jerusalem find their way home. The Jewish exiles had remained scattered long after they returned under the patronage of the Persian kings. The appearance of the light brings a complete end to the exile. The poet-prophet imagines a world in which the abused and nearly forgotten are drawn back to their proper home among God’s beloved people.

On the other hand, the procession also includes more than the scattered Jewish exiles. It also includes “the wealth of the nations” (Isaiah 60:5 NRSV). Israel was rarely one of the affluent nations in its sphere of influence. Most often Israel, in its disadvantage, stood in awe—and sometimes envy—of its larger, more powerful, and prosperous neighbors. But God reverses this reality. The lowly are lifted up. The once-abandoned city will contain the wealth of the world.

It’s important to remember that Isaiah’s rhetoric has two sides. In part, it’s economic in that the people’s misfortunes are reversed. But it’s also theological. The wealth of the nations is brought, not to enrich one people over another, but as an offering of worship. The passage begins by describing God’s glory in verses 1 and 2, and ends by describing God’s glory again in verse 7 (which we didn’t read in the lection). This is all about the glory of God: the light shining in the darkness, rising upon us so that we, too, might see and reflect its rays further, deeper, and allow others to see and come to God.

Like the nations Isaiah mentions, the wealth and gifts we bring to God every Sunday are signs that we submit ourselves to God’s coming kingdom. This is what happened when the magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus, the King of the Jews. When God is worshipped and worshipped rightly, all God’s people—all people together—can prosper. When we allow ourselves to reflect God’s glorious light, everyone can find their way, everyone can find inclusion, within the fold of God’s chosen people. Everyone can bask in the glow of God’s glory.

God’s presence with us creates newness for the entire world. In Isaiah’s oracle, all—Jerusalem, the exiles, the nations—all, receive the gift of life. The purpose of God through the covenant with Abraham has always been the blessing of all nations, all peoples: all.

From the perspective of the church, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of this prophetic utterance. The Gospel of John teaches us that Jesus is our light. The opening verses tell us: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:1-5, CEB).

At the Epiphany we celebrate the fact that God has revealed and made manifest the mystery of salvation to those of us who, at one time, were not God’s people. It’s the light that has drawn us in. Now, our job is to let that light shine forth in us so others can see and come, too.

But it means we have to lay aside some things. Especially the things in our lives that prevent God’s light from shining through us. Sometimes the darkness feels more comfortable simply because we know it so well. It’s familiar. But God is not content with darkness. We’re called to repent of our sins and sinful ways. We’re called to let God’s light burn away the dark places in our hearts and minds.

Just as the appearance of a star drew the magi to seek the Christ child in Bethlehem, so the light of Christ draws the world to God. As Israel was meant to be a light to the nations and reflect the glory of God’s presence back into the world, so now—alongside God’s chosen people—are we. We shine and reflect God’s light in the dark places of the world by being present with people who have not yet seen or known God’s love and grace.

We are God’s stained-glass window. Each of us has a different shape and color. Each of us has a unique story. Yet when the light shines through us, we paint an expressive picture. We tell a story about God’s love and gift of salvation that the world cannot ignore. That’s what happens when we let God’s glory shine in us. We become light to the world around us, reflecting the light that has dawned in our hearts. Jesus Christ is our light.

Arise! The darkness cannot stand! God’s glory is here, ready to shine forth in us.

If we’ll let it.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Mary | 4th Advent

Worship video:

Luke 1:26-38

26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.”

38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (CEB)

Mary

The Annunciation to Mary is a pivotal moment in time. Indeed, Mary herself is one of the most pivotal persons in human history. Through this young Jewish woman, Mary, God did something extraordinary. The God who made heaven and earth, who set the stars and planets in the expanse of the universe, stooped to humanity for an intimate intervention in our messy affairs.

The angel Gabriel greeted Mary and told her that she is highly favored by God. The Advent of God’s Son was announced. The child of Mary would receive the throne of David and reign forever with no end to his dominion. The incarnation of the Word was about to happen, and the God of all creation was about to became a fragile human being, nurtured in Mary’s womb.

When the first Advent of Christ came upon the world, the world had no idea that everything had shifted, that God had done the unimaginable—even the unthinkable. Mary was the only one who knew.

Gabriel greeted Mary with the words, “Rejoice favored one! The Lord is with you,” (CEB) and he assured her, “God is honoring you” (Luke 1:30c CEB). The grace, favor, and rejoicing of God and Mary get woven through this text.

The first word the angel spoke to Mary (χαῖρε) was used as a formal greeting along the lines of us saying, I’m glad to see you! So, it can be translated from Greek as Greetings or Rejoice.

The second word (κεχαριτωμένη) can be translated as favored-one or graced-one. That’s why the Hail Mary prayer begins, “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.” It’s a direct quote from Scripture.

Whether we translate the words into English as favor or grace, what’s clear is that Mary is both the object and recipient of God’s favor, grace, and honor. God chose Mary of all the women who have ever lived which is really incredible to think about. We might wonder why God chose Mary but, no matter how many times we read the text, all we discover about her is that she is a virgin (we assume she’s young, but her age is never mentioned), and she’s engaged to be married to Joseph.

In fact, in this text, we learn more about Joseph than we learn about Mary. We’re told that Joseph is a descendant of the house of David, and he is engaged to Mary. Even in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer, we’re told that they were righteous before God and blameless according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. We’re even told of Zechariah’s occupation as a priest and some of the duties he performed. Yet, we aren’t given a single word to describe Mary’s virtues. What was it about Mary that led God to choose her? What was so special about her? Luke’s narrative doesn’t explain why God chose her as the recipient of such profound favor and grace. 

Maybe that’s the point. God chose Mary simply because Mary was God’s choice. Mary didn’t need to earn the grace, honor, or favor that God bestowed upon her. As always, God’s grace is a gift. God simply chose this otherwise unremarkable woman with a name so common that six women in the New Testament shared it.

God chose Mary, and that was enough. The narrative of salvation contained in Scripture is not about the rewards God gives for our virtue and uprightness, but of God’s offering of unmerited, gratuitous grace to the world simply because God loves us. No one has earned God’s favor. No one can earn it. God’s grace is a gift.

While Mary’s virtues are not listed for us to peruse, we do learn a lot about Mary from her response to the angel’s message. When the angel told her what would happen: that she would become pregnant and give birth to a son whom she would name Jesus, and explained how this was all going to come about by the power of the Holy Spirit and the ambiguity of whatever it meant for the power of the Most High to “overshadow” her, Mary simply said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said” (Luke 1:38 CEB).

Mary offered herself back to God. She offered herself as a gift to the One who made her. We don’t need to have Luke extol Mary’s virtues by listing them out. We can see everything in Mary’s response of humble self-offering. She speaks of herself with humility, declaring that she is only a slave. Some translations render the word handmaid because the word Mary uses in the Greek text is the feminine form (δούλη). Mary sees herself as a servant, nothing more. When we read the Magnificat—Mary’s song—she speaks of her low status and, again, of her role as a servant or slave: “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am, I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant” (Luke 1:46b-48a CEB).

When she says that all generations will consider her highly favored, it’s not because of herself. It’s neither because of who she is or what she has done, but only because of what God has done. Mary said, “Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me” (Luke 1:48-49a CEB). Mary understood that her worth, and her status as grace-filled, favored, and beloved, come from God as a gift.

It’s unlikely that she understood why God chose her. She probably didn’t understand God’s purpose in giving her a son in this way. Years later, when Jesus was older, Mary puzzled over her son’s behavior. We know she didn’t quite understand how this would work because she had to ask Gabriel how in the world she could get pregnant when she hadn’t been with a man.

The angel reminded her that nothing is impossible with God. God overcame the barrenness of Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth and, while the pregnancies of those women were improbable, the pregnancy of Mary was impossible. Yet, nothing is impossible with God.

That idea could sum up the whole of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s two books tell the story of the impossible things that God has done: the incarnational conception of God’s Son in a virgin’s womb, the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, the resurrection of Jesus, the ascension of Jesus, the giving of the Holy Spirit, the formation of the Church, the release of apostles from prison cells, more healings and miraculous feats of faith. Over and over again we read about the impossible things that God has accomplished through people who chose to respond to God in faith and trust and hope.

While there were many aspects of God’s work that Mary didn’t understand, Mary did understand that God could overcome impossibilities. Her humility allowed her to accept God’s choice of herself and God’s plan to have a son through her, though she didn’t understand God’s whole plan. She simply accepted God’s choice of her. In that way, Mary became the perfect example of faithfulness.

One crucial thing we learn from Mary’s faithfulness is that gifts keep on giving. Mary’s faithful gift of herself to God—in response of God’s gift to her—became a grace and gift to the whole world. Mary’s son was a gift to Mary, but her son was not a gift for Mary alone. The child she bore and loved, the boy she cuddled and nursed, gave himself as a gift also. Jesus gave us the gift of redemption for the whole human race. Jesus offered himself as the gift of salvation to every human being. Through Jesus Christ, God gave us the gift of adoption as children of God. Gifts keep on giving. One person responding in faith can change the world. We don’t know everything, but we do know that God has chosen to love us.

I wonder if we can really understand that much: why God would choose to love us. There are days when I don’t understand why God would choose me for anything. There have been days when I have puzzled over God’s choice of me. There have been days when I have wished that God had chosen someone else to do the work to which God called me. But, there again, I learn from Mary.

She watched her son die on a cross. I can only imagine the torturous anguish she felt. She probably wondered what went wrong with God’s plan. After all, the angel had spoken to her with such grand words and high promises in the beginning: “He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom” (Luke 1:32-33 CEB).

Yet, she watched her son die on a cross. Mary couldn’t have understood that Jesus’ self-offering was yet another of God’s gifts to her and to us. In those moments when she watched her son die, I kind of doubt that Mary understood the death of God’s Son—her child—as a gift. I don’t know if Mary still hoped in God’s promise to her in those grief-stretched hours. But I am certain that Mary knew that nothing is impossible for God. She had already experienced the impossible-made-possible.

Like Mary, we are servants of God because God has chosen us. Why God would choose us is beyond me. It’s not because we’re decent or worthy. In fact, the deeper mystery to God’s favor is that God make the choice to give us Jesus not only because of our inadequacies, but to heal them. We are unworthy objects of God’s gratuitous grace and undeserved favor. Yet, the gift is ours. God showed favor and grace to Mary. And through Mary’s offering of herself, God has shown favor and grace to us.

We are the recipients of more profound a gift than we could possibly imagine: a gift of God through God’s servant. God has made us the recipients of grace upon grace, and favor upon favor. We don’t need to understand God’s choice or even God’s full plan. We only need to accept that God has chosen.

What is our response to the favor and grace which God has and continues to bestow upon us?

We rejoice!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

John the Witness | 3rd Advent

Worship Video:

John 1:6-8, 19-28

6 A man named John was sent from God. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. 8 He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light.

19 This is John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?”

20 John confessed (he didn’t deny but confessed), “I’m not the Christ.”

21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

John said, “I’m not.”

“Are you the prophet?”

John answered, “No.”

22 They asked, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

23 John replied,

“I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight, just as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 Those sent by the Pharisees 25 asked, “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”

26 John answered, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. 27 He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.” 28 This encounter took place across the Jordan in Bethany where John was baptizing. (CEB)

John the Witness

Nearly six years ago, on Saturday, February 28, 2015, I had my take-in conversation with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee of First United Methodist Church. The take-in is usually the first official meeting between a pastor and a congregation’s leadership prior to the bishop’s appointment becoming official. We talked about the congregation’s story, strengths, and weaknesses, and my story, strengths, and weaknesses. And we talked about our hopes.

I’m often warry of talk of hope because such talk can get a little tricky. If our enthusiasm gets the better of us, such hopeful talk can lead to unrealistic expectations. I remember that, when the conversation moved to possibilities and hopes for the future with my appointment, I balked a little. Not because the conversation went awry—it did not. It was a really good, honest conversation. I didn’t want to douse those hopes by any means because hope is a good thing. Excitement is a good thing. But I did want to make sure that the congregation’s hopes were not pinned on me alone because I know that I have very human limitations. So, I needed to point out the reality of me. And I recall that one of the things I said was this: “I know one thing for certain: I am not the Messiah.”

Sometimes we need to remember who we are not. John knew who he was not. In fact, the first words we hear from John are a confession of who he is not. “This is John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John confessed (he didn’t deny but confessed), ‘I’m not the Christ’” (John 1:19-20 CEB). Then, his questioners asked him if he was either Elijah or the Prophet, and he denied that he was either.

There is a tradition among prophets to deny they are anything special. When Amos was told to go prophecy somewhere else, he denied that he was a prophet, stating instead that he was a shepherd and tree trimmer (c.f. Amos 7:14). Isaiah tried to take a step back from God’s presence by stating that he wasn’t worthy to be there (c.f. Isaiah 6:5). Jeremiah tried to say he was too young for the work of a prophet (c.f. Jeremiah 1:6).

The priests and Levites wanted to know who John was. He was out in the wilderness doing baptisms (c.f. John 1:25), and they wanted to know why he was doing this, especially if he wasn’t Elijah or the Prophet. Afterall, the people expected the advent of Elijah prior to the Day of the Lord, and they expected God to raise up the Prophet who would teach God’s people as in the days of Moses. John didn’t have the religious authorities’ stamp of approval for this work. He certainly didn’t have a license for ministry from the temple or high priest. So, they wanted to know who John claimed to be, but in three of the four answers John gives he proclaimed who he was not.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke do connect John to Elijah. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus tell us, “If you are willing to accept it, he [John] is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14 CEB). Mark’s Gospel is a lot more subtle about the identification of John with Elijah and doesn’t make the connection outright (c.f. Mark 9:11-13). Luke’s Gospel tells us John came in the spirit and power of Elijah (c.f. Luke 1:17). All of this points back to the Prophet Malachi who proclaimed, “Look, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you, before the great and terrifying day of the LORD arrives” (Malachi 4:5 CEB). Because of Malachi’s words, people began to associate the Day of the Lord with the coming of the Messiah, and they believed Elijah’s appearance would prepare the way for the Messiah and the Day of the Lord the Messiah would bring.

The Prophet whom the priests and the Levites asked John about probably refers to a prophet like Moses whom the people had expected since the day Moses died. Before Moses died, he told the community of Israelites, “The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to” (Deuteronomy 18:15 CEB). Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus was identified by the people as the Prophet like Moses in 6:14 and 7:40. John—the man sent from God—denied that he was the Prophet likely because he knew that title belonged to Jesus. Yet, as the Messiah and Son of God, Jesus was always more than a prophet.

John knew who he was, and who he was not. He was only the messenger-voice crying out in the wilderness of which Isaiah foretold (c.f. Isaiah 40:3-5). He was a witness who pointed to Jesus, nothing more. John, himself, could only speak of his subordination to Jesus. Later, John says, “You yourselves can testify that I said that I’m not the Christ but that I’m the one sent before him. The groom is the one who is getting married. The friend of the groom stands close by and, when he hears him, is overjoyed at the groom’s voice. Therefore, my joy is now complete. He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:28-30 CEB).

It’s also interesting that, in the Fourth Gospel, this man sent from God whose name was John is never described as the Baptist as in Matthew, or the Baptizer as in Mark. In Luke, he’s only the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. But in John’s Gospel, he’s just plain John. His primary role in the Gospel of John is not as a baptizer, but as a witness. Specifically, a witness to Jesus the Christ. John’s ministry—everything he did—prepared the way and pointed to Jesus. John worked to get the people ready for the embodiment of God in the world.

John is neither the light nor the Word. John exists to testify to the one who is the light and the Word-made-flesh. His purpose in life is to bear witness to the one he is not. John’s negatives keep building as he speaks. He tells the priests and Levites that they don’t know the one he’s talking about even though he stands among them. John says he isn’t worthy to untie the sandals of the one coming after him. There is a large gap between who John is and the one to whom John points as a witness.

I’ve always had somewhat mixed feelings about those What Would Jesus Do bracelets that used to be so popular. While the saying can help remind us to act the way we ought to act by using Jesus as our example, there are some profound limits to our doing what Jesus would do.

I mean, I can do a lot of things Jesus did. I can cook fish like Jesus did. In fact, my grilled salmon recipes are astoundingly good, if I do say so myself: grilled salted salmon, grilled Parmesan salmon, grilled cocktail salmon. I could probably get myself kicked out of church like Jesus did, if I really tried. I have occasionally been known to drop a pithy saying like Jesus did. I can tell a good story like Jesus did. If I use a pair of skies, I can even walk on water (or, at least, glide across water)…

…I just can’t do it without a boat pulling me at about 20 miles per hour. I can’t raise the dead. I can’t heal the sick with the touch of a hand. I can’t ascend into heaven. I can’t appear in or disappear from locked rooms without going through the door. I’ve never cast out a demon or drowned a herd of pigs. There are a LOT of things Jesus did that I can’t do. I can’t even love the way Jesus loved.

My place isn’t to be exactly like Jesus because I can’t be exactly like Jesus. I know because I try and fail every day. I can’t save myself, let alone the whole world. A huge gap exists between me and Jesus, what I can do and what Jesus can do. But I, like John, can witness to Jesus Christ as the light and incarnate Word of God. I can’t do everything Jesus did, but I can point to Jesus. While I know that John far outstrips me in faith and importance, I’m much more like John. Aren’t we all? We are merely witnesses to the grace and mercy of God who became flesh for the healing of the nations and salvation of the world.

At the same time, our witness is in constant danger of getting drowned out by the other voices out there. Consumerism tells us there’s a different reason for Christmas, that we can find our identity in the brand of clothes we wear, the kind of car we drive, or the size of our house and the neighborhood in which we reside.

Every day, life confronts us with questions about ourselves, doesn’t it? Every day, as the world presses in on us, we’re tempted to answer that question in ways that don’t necessarily point to Jesus. When the world demands to know who we are, we’re tempted to point to things that define us other than Christ. “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” Sometimes, we can feel afraid or embarrassed to answer by pointing to Christ.

The voice of witness that cries out from the wilderness makes a counter-cultural claim. The question we might ask ourselves is what we might fear should we take up that call. John’s faithfulness got him beheaded with his noggin served up on a platter. We Americans have little to fear along those lines, but we are often afraid of being dismissed, rejected, or ignored. Nevertheless, we are called to bear witness, to raise our voices alongside John’s and point to Jesus. In that way, John serves as a model for every Christian.

Like John, we can answer that we aren’t the Messiah. But we can point to the Christ in our words and our actions, in our faith and in our hope, in our love and in our concern for those around us near and far, like us and unlike us. We witness to Jesus—point to the Christ with our lives—so others can believe and follow Christ alongside us. We live somewhere in the middle of who we are and who we are not, who we were before we knew Christ and who we hope to be because of him. We are called to be a people who reflect the light of Christ, and to live in such a way that who we are and how we behave stands as a witness that proclaims the light of Christ to the world.

I am not the Messiah. But I can show you who he is.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Congregational Update, December 10, 2020

Dear members and friends of First United Methodist Church,

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord!

First, I want to say how much I miss seeing you in person. I don’t know when we’ll be able to gather again in our sanctuary for worship, but I know that it hurts. It’s especially troubling as we approach the Christmas season and the joy we expect can only be tamped down. Everyone I’ve spoken to misses church, and most tell me they really miss the people. I believe that speaks positively of our faith community. When we can’t get together, we miss each other.

At the same time, I hope you are taking advantage of our online worship experiences. We continue to stream our worship service live at 10:30 a.m. on the First UMC Facebook page. We also post the video on the Welcome page of the First UMC website, YouTube, and my sermon blog. The links to worship resources are on the church website welcome page (www.firstumcmv.com). 

Second, I want to provide some announcements and updates.

SWNS Virtual Christmas Programs
You can watch the Susanna Wesley Christmas programs live on the SWNS Facebook page. We will stream live at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, December 15 and Thursday, December 17. We’ll read the Christmas story and the children will sing a few songs. Expect the unexpected with a live performance!

Rev. Ed Scholarship Fund for Susanna Wesley Nursery School
We will continue our Advent/Christmas tradition of supporting the Rev. Ed Fund which provides scholarships to Susanna Wesley Nursery School children. These scholarships help tremendously, and they’re especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please consider making a donation to the Rev. Ed Scholarship Fund. Your gift will help children get a head start on their education and build a foundation for faith in Jesus Christ.

FUMC Financial Update
Thank you to everyone who has given and continues to give through the pandemic. I know that finances have gotten tight for a lot of us, so your continued support of the mission and ministry of First UMC means a lot. As you’ll see from the table below, November’s gifts helped tremendously. We are still short for the year, but I hope our collective generosity can make some of that up.

Now for the details. As you’ll see from the table below, we ended November with $10,077 in cash, which gives us a little padding. It’s still very tight for our church, which operates on a budget of nearly $300,000, but at least we are income-over-expenses at the moment. Your giving in November reversed a 5-month trend of expenses-over-income, so that is something we can celebrate! 

At the same time, I encourage all of us to keep giving as we’re able so we can finish the year strong. 

**In May, we received a Federal Payment Protection Program loan for $38,100. Without the PPP loan, we would be $22,022.87 in the red instead of $10,077.13 in the black. 

Christmas Eve Service
Our Christmas Eve service will be virtual this year. The worship video will be available by 7:00 p.m. on December 24. Get your candles ready!

COVID-19 Update by the Numbers
Unfortunately, the news on the pandemic is only getting worse. These numbers come directly from the Indiana Department of Health (www.coronavirus.in.gov). 

In November, Posey County had 461 positive COVID-19 cases and 9 deaths. As of December 9 (the most recent day data is available), Posey County has had 1,507 positive cases and 22 deaths from COVID-19 in 2020. Thus far in December (Dec. 1-9), we have had 192 positive cases and 2 deaths.

For comparison:
Over the first nine days of October, we had 166 positive cases. 
Over the first nine days of November, we had 106 positive cases.

These numbers put December on track to be our worst month yet. (Currently October holds that title at 475 positive cases and 9 deaths, barely eclipsing November’s 460 positive cases and 9 deaths). Dr. Joseph Lee told me that he’s filling out a death certificate every 48 hours due to COVID-19. Your safety and health are why we have suspended in-person worship and other church gatherings. 

Please be careful out there. Please avoid gatherings. Please do the little things that will keep yourselves and others safe.

Yours in Christ,
Rev. Christopher Millay
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Comfort | 2nd of Advent

Worship Video:

Isaiah 40:1-11

1 Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. 2 Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins!

3 A voice is crying out: “Clear the LORD’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! 4 Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. 5 The LORD’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the LORD’s mouth has commanded it.” 6 A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?” All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass dries up and the flower withers when the LORD’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass dries up; the flower withers, but our God’s word will exist forever.

9 Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion! Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem! Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 Here is the LORD God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him. 11 Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes. (CEB)

Comfort

Try to imagine, if you will, that we are the second, third, or fourth great-grandchild of people who were exiled from their homeland. Depending on your age, that means you’re the fourth, fifth, or sixth generation removed from them. Imagine we are the descendants of ancestors whose homeland was invaded, who were defeated, who suffered the destruction of their homes and livelihoods, the slaughter of their families and fellow citizens, who were forced by the enemy that conquered them to live as captives in the enemy’s capital city.

Imagine we’ve grown up hearing stories of that home and the way things were. We’ve heard the longing for our ancestral home in the stories passed down from our parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. We’ve heard descriptions of its beauty, abundance, and glory. We’ve been told of the magnificence of God’s temple in the city of Jerusalem.

Of course, we’ve also been told the older stories from Scripture, of how God rescued our more ancient ancestors from slavery in Egypt and how God established those ancestors in the Promised Land. And, when we ask what changed, how our family and all the other families became slaves in exile, our elders say that God has abandoned us. Our second, third, or fourth great-grandparents sinned, so God handed them over to suffer this ignominy. Now, God won’t listen to us. God won’t hear. And God won’t help. We have nothing. Even as we try to live faithfully now, it seems of no avail. God has abandoned us. And, until God decides to rescue us, this is where we’ll stay. <Pause>

Try to imagine the situation of the first and the last generations of exiled Jews in Babylon. For those first generations in exile, their entire world had been turned upside down, and the Prophet Jeremiah told the exiles to settle in: to get married, have children, find spouses for their children. The people hoped the exile would be a short-term situation, and some false prophets said it would be. But Jeremiah rightly declared that the exile would last a long time (c.f. Jeremiah 29:4-14). For the last generation in exile, all they had were stories of a home that was lost and little reason to hope for a return.

Then, the prophet speaks, “Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins!” (Isaiah 40:1-2 CEB).

These unexpected words of comfort mark a radical shift in the tone of Isaiah as a whole. They open the section of Isaiah called Second Isaiah. The first 39 chapters are the words of an 8th century B.C. prophet who spoke of disaster and God’s judgment as a result of people’s sin—especially the arrogance of the well-to-do and powerful who neglected to care for the poor and powerless. The words of Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, proclaim Israel’s homecoming from exile where they have lived as captives for roughly 150 years. These are words that declare hope in God and confidence in God’s sure and certain redemption of a people who have suffered.

God prepares the way for the fulfillment of old and longed-for hope: a return to home. The prophet says that God is, in fact, already doing the groundwork, removing obstacles to the people’s long-awaited return. A voice, the people are told, is crying out: “Clear the LORD’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain” (Isaiah 40:3-4 CEB).

The prophet, himself, seems startled by the declaration. When that voice says, “Call out!” the prophet replies, “What should I call out?” before diving into reasons why he should not be the one to bring this message of comfort. The prophet knows that he’s as unreliable as anyone else. All people are like grass. Our loyalty, reliability, and faithfulness are transitory and temporary at best. The prophet echoes David when he says, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3 NRSV). Our lives wither up and dry out. Surely, we’re like grass.

Then, the prophet makes a realization. Yes, people are like grass and our loyalty is fickle, but God’s word stands forever. God’s word of comfort and promise of redemption is not based on the people’s faithfulness nor our worthiness to receive it, nor our suitability for it, nor our meeting of certain qualifications to attain it. The comfort God declares that God will give is based solely on God’s resolve to give it. This is God’s doing. This is God’s freely offered grace and act of comfort and intimate care. It’s not based on the work of any human being. God will fulfill this word because God said so.

Advent is a season where we hear God’s promises again. Yes, we’re languishing in a global pandemic. We are lonely. We are hurting. We’re mentally exhausted and emotionally strained. People are dying. We wonder if we’re making right decisions and choices. Then, we’re second-guessing every decision we make. We want to be able to walk into a store without worrying about contracting a virus. And we just want to gather together with our church, and with our families, and with our friends: especially for Christmas. We want our celebrations to feel celebratory, and so much of that means celebrating with others. We wonder when this mess will end. We’re all going stir-crazy.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1 NRSV).

These are words that we need to hear right now, aren’t they? We are a people in distress. We live among people in distress, in a world that is in distress. We could use some comfort. We need to hear God’s compassionate words. We want to know, if we are paying some kind of penalty, that it’s been paid in full.

For the prophet of Second Isaiah, the people’s sin could not explain the? level of disaster that occurred. The exile seemed disproportionate. Which is why Second Isaiah challenges and argues with interpreters of the past who levied blame and raised their voices in despair. In Lamentations, Daughter Zion cried out for comfort by saying, “Because of all these things I’m crying. My eyes, my own eyes pour water because a comforter who might encourage me is nowhere near” (Lamentations 1:16a CEB; c.f. also 1:2, 9, 21). In Lamentations, through all the cries of grief that begged God to answer, God remained silent.

In Second Isaiah, however, God answers with unexpected words of comfort that this beleaguered people has longed to hear. More than simply answering, Isaiah declares that the character of God includes compassion and tender care. Go up on the mountain and shout without fear, “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9d CEB).

Why, we might ask, would the messenger fear to raise their voice and speak such a message? I imagine it’s because—to those exiles (and maybe to us)—things still didn’t look so good. Everything still looked the same: broken, hopeless, irreversible. This message is too preposterous to believe, too joyful for the times, too much for anyone’s imagination.

How does one speak a message of hope when everything still looks hopeless? How does one proclaim that our future will be bright when our present is nothing but thick clouds and darkness? It can be a fearful thing to speak of hope when we are in despair. Messages of hope in such times can seem foolish, if not reckless, even cruel.

Yet, the prophet is told to speak of hope, like lighting a candle in the dark of night. God is coming. The prophet says God is coming, “…with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him. Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes” (Isaiah 40:10-11 CEB).

It’s a strange duality that Isaiah proclaims. God comes in strength and triumphant power, like a shepherd who nuzzles lambs in his lap and leads nursing ewes with tender gentleness. God’s strength, it seems, is not like we imagine strength to be. John the Seer noted a similar duality of God’s strength when he wrote, “‘Don’t weep. Look! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has emerged victorious so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain (Revelation 5:5-6 CEB). God’s power and might come to us in the paradoxical form of gentleness, tenderness, care, intimacy, and loving presence. God expends God’s immeasurable power to heal, nurture, and provide for the flock God loves and calls God’s own.

God will come. God will come in gentle power and all of humanity will see it together. Do we trust God’s word even now? Do we dare to imagine that God’s declaration of good news will come to be?

In the text, the identity of the speakers are not specifically noted. A preacher like me who interprets the text can only guess. But part of me wonders, when one voice commands the other to call out, if we aren’t the ones whom God commands to speak this strange, almost unbelievable good news from the mountaintops. What if, like the prophet of Second Isaiah, we are the ones commissioned to speak of God’s compassion to a hurting world that desperately needs to hear it?

The Season of Advent reassures us that the God in whom we trust does, indeed, honor promises and covenants. The hope to which we hold in Advent exists in a tension between the mess that is now and the beauty of what will yet be.

We can hope because God is present, just as the exiles could hope because God is present. But we aren’t home yet. And that’s another piece of Advent. The church—all of us—we have a call, a responsibility, a commission to not only speak of God’s good news, but also to do our part in preparing the way. We do that by offering the power of compassionate and tender care to a hurting and wounded world. We prepare the way by offering ourselves as a gift to others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay